Ari Folman was a 19-year-old Israeli soldier in the 1982 war in Lebanon. But he had suppressed almost all memories of that time until 20 years later, when a friend recounted a recurring nightmare of a pack of snarling, vicious dogs marauding the streets of Tel Aviv. This unnerving dream is the first thing we see in Folman's remarkable "Waltz With Bashir," an animated documentary that scrambles your notions of what animation, and documentary, can be. Interviewing his friends and fellow soldiers, Folman begins to piece together the savage, surreal experience of that war, which culminated in the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, where Christian Phalangist militia slaughtered hundreds of unarmed Palestinians while the Israelis looked on.
The images of war that Folman and his chief illustrator, David Polonsky, conjure up have a feverish, infernal beauty. Dreams and reality jumble together. One surviving soldier fantasizes being carried across the sea riding the breast of a giant naked woman while, in reality, his fellow Israelis die in flames as their boat is bombed. Another soldier, under a hail of sniper fire, waltzes into the middle of the street, surrounded by posters of the assassinated Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel, his machine gun spewing nonstop bullets in a defiant denial of death. These depictions of the dementia of war have a hallucinatory power that can stand alongside those of "Apocalypse Now."
"Waltz With Bashir" is about how memory can distort, and shield us, from the truth. You can look at it as a kind of esthetic psycho-therapy, not just for the filmmaker but for his country. It builds, inevitably, to the darkest, most buried memory—the massacre itself. When Folman's movie arrives at the scene of the crime, the animation gives way to actual footage of the slaughter's aftermath. The effect is unforgettable.